RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The T.M. Landry school in Louisiana built a reputation around a central promise. If a student works hard, buys into the school's particular vision and follows the rules, they might get into the Ivy League. Viral videos have showed their students opening acceptance letters to Harvard, Yale and other elite universities. But the reality of what goes on behind the school's closed doors is very different.
New York Times reporter Erica Green unearthed a darker side, an abusive founder who bred a culture of fear and falsified his students' college applications.
ERICA GREEN: They were getting in based on recommendations that had false information about students to make them stand out, transcripts that had courses that students had never taken and just, you know, accolades that they had never received. So...
MARTIN: Let's unpack a couple of those different threads. First, just the stories they were encouraging their students to tell - can you give us an example of how they would use hyperbole, encourage a student to in some cases just lie in these essays?
GREEN: Yeah. Based on our reporting, the students told us that when they were preparing their essays, the Landrys wanted them to concoct stories about their families that were not true. You know, we had one student, a graduate who is now at a university, detail for us staying up until the wee hours of the morning with Mr. Landry telling him that he wasn't giving him what he wanted.
And what he wanted was a personal story about his mother being, you know, a drug addict and having to take care of his brother. And the student wanted to write about battling epilepsy. But Mr. Landry did not think that that was something that would make him stand out. And frankly, you know, he thought it was a weakness.
MARTIN: It wasn't just the fraud and the lying. Your reporting uncovered a culture of fear and abuse.
GREEN: Yeah. That was, you know, part of - one of the toughest parts of the story. You know, it was really just part of the culture. And I'm not making a judgment call here. It's infused from the morning meetings where it's routine to demean certain students and make certain students kneel if they aren't pulling their weight academically. But it was just infused in the culture. It was just his way of pushing them. It was his way of helping them to become mentally strong and physically strong before they went out into the world.
MARTIN: We should be explicit. Your reporting says that he choked - physically choked at least a couple of students.
MARTIN: He took a student with autism and locked that child in a closet.
MARTIN: Another student - had him kneel for two hours on a bathroom floor. It's not anything but normal, right?
MARTIN: The students who went on to these Ivy League schools - how'd they do when they got there?
GREEN: We know anecdotally how some have done. There are a few that we know of who are doing very well. And when I say well, you know, they're maintaining good grades. They are adjusting well to their environments. I mean, some of these students are leaders on their campuses, are being, you know, placed into pipelines for doctoral programs. You know, for other students who have gone to just top-tier universities, not necessarily even Ivy leagues, they are really struggling.
And, you know, we featured a young woman who had to leave very recently because, you know, she had been convinced that she was a math and science whiz, which is what the Landrys really emphasize in the school, is STEM preparation. And when she got to her math and science courses, it was like reading a foreign language for her.
MARTIN: Yeah. You interviewed the Landrys for this story. Can you describe your last interaction with them, which you detail in the - at the end of your piece, which is really striking?
GREEN: Yeah. The last interaction was quite jarring. We found ourselves in this kind of conference room where older students - more high school age - were filing in kind of one by one. And then it just became this big powwow where every question that we asked him, he had a student answer. The students were very much defending, you know, the Landrys' style and the school's model. And he handpicked them, you know, for our questions. He hand-picked who would answer.
You know, it was tense at times, especially when we asked, like, why are you so focused on the Ivys? And that is when he got particularly aggravated and animated and decided to make, you know, every question that we asked an attack on the students and said, you know, that he was basically a martyr and that he would take whatever we threw at him if it meant that he could get his kids to Harvard.
MARTIN: Erica Green of The New York Times, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.
GREEN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.